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If we're going to discuss rules questions, we'll often be quoting from the rule books, in part because Stack Exchange really encourages quoting from a source instead of (and in addition to) just linking to it.

In a recent question, we have an entire paragraph quoted from the MLB rulebook (which is copyrighted). I'm not too concerned with what we've done for this individual question, but for the longer term: after a few seasons of people asking baseball rules questions, we can end up with a significant portion of the MLB rulebook quoted here. At some point, after a large portion of the rulebook (if not the whole thing) can be reassembled from quotes on sports.stackexchange, will there be a copyright violation? If so, it would be nice to address the issue now, while the scope is smaller.

(I'm writing this from a US perspective on copyright law because the copyright holder of this particular rulebook is in the US and because Stack Exchange is based in the US. So this specific issue is US-centric, but the general question is still probably applicable to the rest of the world.)

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Copyrighted materials are something we must take seriously. As there are many different types of copyrights and even more ways you might or might not be allowed to quote specific copyrighted materials, we might do ourselves a favor by building a meta question with the more commonly used materials - like the MLB rulebook above - along with the rules for quoting...

  • A meta question? Or should it go in the faq. – corsiKa Mar 29 '12 at 1:16
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Copyright law is extremely complicated. I am not a lawyer, so I am not going to pretend to give you unassailable legal advice —

So let's start with a bit of background and just enough common sense so not to get too dangerous:

The issue of "quoting from copyrighted rule books" falls primarily under the clauses of "Fair Use" of US Copyright law. The concept of fair use permits limited use of copyrighted material for things like teaching, reporting, and criticism. That means if (for example) you are teaching someone about the ruling in an athletic situation, you should be able to quote a short passage from that book to illustrate a point.

But almost all fair use cases describe a general rule that no more of the copy or trademark work should be used than is necessary for the legitimate purpose. What that means, essentially, is that we should try to work within the bounds of common sense. For the purpose of operating your site (without getting into a bunch of legal hassles), you should concern yourself primarily with editing for valid and relevant content. If a photo or an extended passage can be adequately explained without copying large swaths of copyrighted material, that material should be omitted.

A lawyer might be able to argue the nitty gritty of "what you can get away with," but let's err towards keeping the site running smoothly without attracting these legal hassles.

Sorry I am not able to give you a better be-all-end-all guide to what's allowed and what is not. Sometimes it is simply easier to avoid the issue altogether.

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It is worth noting, too, that oftentimes paraphrases can work just as well. While the specific wording of the rule book is of course copyrightable (and copyrighted), something like "Rule 8 Subsection W Codicil Gimel creates an explicit exception to the intentional grounding rule for spiking the ball immediately after the snap" sidesteps it neatly.

Quoting the exact wording of a rule should really only be necessary when two or more knowledgeable people disagree as to the accuracy of a paraphrase. That should cut down on the need to quote directly quite a bit.

  • As for the legality itself, I strongly suspect that SE has legal counsel, if not in house then on retainer; and since I'm pretty sure that it's SE that would be hit with the takedown notice/cease-and-desist/whatsoever, this is exactly the kind of issue they would be paid to comment on, so perhaps it's worth bringing this to the attention of the SE staff so they can forward it up the chain. That said, if we take my suggestion above and try to avoid quoting when it's not absolutely necessary anyway, we can make this less of an issue to begin with. – Steely Dan May 25 '12 at 18:36

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